One for All

Elizabeth Wells, a program associate in the University’s Water Resources Center and volunteer canine rescue driver, is one of hundreds of University employees taking part in the University’s first volunteer service drive.

Taking a cue from a nationwide movement to embrace the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday as a “day on, not a day off,” the University launched the University of Minnesota Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Service Volunteer Pledge Drive on January 21. A pilot project of the Twin Cities and Rochester campuses, the drive continues through May 17 and turns one day of doing good into a whole semester of giving. Faculty, staff, and students who volunteer will work with individuals and organizations to address local needs ranging from child literacy and animal rescue to helping to build affordable housing.

The drive is sponsored by the University’s Office for Public Engagement in collaboration with the Public Engagement Council; Office for Equity and Diversity; and University Senate Committee on Equity, Access, and Diversity. Faculty, staff, and students who would like to take the pledge and sign up for any number of volunteer community service hours can do so on the University’s pledge-drive website.

Volunteers can pledge hours to any 501(c) nonprofit organization, including those for which they already volunteer. Anyone looking for a new volunteer opportunity can visit the websites of HandsOn Twin Cities and the United Way of Olmstead County Volunteer Center, which have partnered with the University for the drive. “MLK Day is a great time to ask people to make a difference, and we’re very excited and happy to be partnering with the University on this,” says Kristin Schurrer, HandsOn Twin Cities’ executive director. “We’re hoping our partnership will grow into doing more things together.”

HandsOn Twin Cities is a good match for the pledge drive, Schurrer says, because their mission has always been to connect people with meaningful volunteer opportunities with over 300 nonprofits in the metro area. “We see ourselves as a resource for people who don’t have a place or cause in mind, but would like to volunteer and just need a place to start.” Rochester faculty, staff, and students can find additional volunteer opportunities in their area by visiting the University’s Raptor Recruiters website.

A commitment to diversity

In addition to honoring King’s vision by doing more to bring people together to strengthen communities, the volunteer pledge drive also reflects the University’s commitment to public engagement for the common good, which is central to the its land grant mission. Lauren Beach, a genetics Ph.D. candidate who earned a law degree from the University in 2012 and is now a student in the University’s Joint Degree Program in Law, Heath & the Life Sciences, was among the key people involved in broadening the University’s recognition of MLK Day.

Beach, a member of the University Senate’s Equity, Access, and Diversity Committee, worked with fellow committee member Richard Graff, an associate professor in the Department of Writing Studies, to explore what other Big Ten Universities were doing in recognition of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Their report, which was finished in 2009, noted both what institutions were doing around issues of race and how they were honoring King’s legacy through community service.

Looking at peer institutions highlighted opportunities for the University to do more “to engage faculty, staff, and students around the King holiday,” Beach said. The committee’s recommendations included development of a centralized MLK Day website, the creation of a University-sponsored day of service, and several other activities.

Conversations about what could be done and how it would happen continued, culminating in the pilot project this semester by the Office for Public Engagement. The volunteer pledge drive is inspired by the MLK Day of Service sponsored since 1994 by the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that is also home to AmeriCorps.

“I feel like it’s very fitting to celebrate the holiday in this way because Martin Luther King stood in solidarity with all communities that were involved in social justice struggles,” Beach says. “With the University recently marking its 150-year land grant anniversary, it’s a great time to celebrate our mission by highlighting our commitment to diversity and community.”